Rent de-stabilization in Prospect Lefferts Gardens

Rent de-stabilization in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Photo by Jason Speakman

A Prospect Lefferts Gardens landlord is harassing his rent-stabilized, black tenants and letting their apartments crumble around them to move in wealthy white people, a lawsuit alleges.

Residents of Homewood Gardens, a partially rent-regulated complex near the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, filed the federal suit on Monday, claiming that building owner Yeshaya Wasserman is refusing to make repairs and making fake claims about missing rent checks, illegal appliances, and pet ownership. The predominately African-American renters claim the tactics constitute a campaign to clear them out and replace them with affluent white people, in violation of federal civil rights law.

“His motivation is to get people like me out,” said Alston Pilgrim, a math professor at Medgar Evers College who has lived in his apartment since 1980. “But I’ve been here a long time. I don’t really care to go anyplace else.”

Wasserman, who bought the 52-apartment complex in 2009, is not cashing their rent checks and is claiming long-tolerated washing machines and pets are not allowed in a bid to put their owners out on the street, tenants claimed at a press conference inside Saint Gabriel’s Episcopal Church on Hawthorne Street on Tuesday. Since buying the place, Wasserman has managed to drive out 20 tenants and has replaced them almost exclusively with white renters, the court papers say.

“This goes beyond just harassment,” said Edward Josephson, director of litigation at Legal Services NYC, which helped file the lawsuit. “This is discrimination. They’re trying to push out the people who have been here for decades.”

The buildings are located along Hawthorne and Brooklyn avenues near Wingate Park and all the units are three-bedrooms. The only new black tenant left the complex after Wasserman jacked up his rent when his first lease expired, residents said.

Mikela Atherton lives in one of the Brooklyn Avenue buildings with her mother and three kids. She said the family paid their rent on time every month, but came home one day to find an eviction notice taped to her door, demanding 10 months in back rent.

“I was like, ‘What?’ ” she said. “It’s scary. He’s harassing these people so much — until they get fed up and just leave.”

Worse is the landlord’s neglect of apartments rented by long-term renters, Altherton said. The sink in her bathroom fell off the wall recently, nearly crushing her 6-year-old son, she said.

“He was shaking,” she said. “He was really scared.”

The landlord had the sink replaced later the same day, but Altherton said the fix was a shoddy one.

“They came and just slapped a new one up. Now it’s leaking,” she said.

One of the tenants’ lawyers said this type of half-hearted upkeep is part of Wasserman’s strategy.

“They do a sort of parody of repairs,” said Josephson. Aside from the lawsuit, Legal Services is also helping tenants file complaints in housing court to get the city to force Wasserman to make repairs.

Meanwhile, Wasserman continues to bring his own housing court complaints against his tenants, most of them for non-payment of rent, which the renters say is totally frivolous.

The dense, working-class neighborhood served by four subway lines and bordering Prospect Park is prime territory for speculative real estate investment, but tenant advocates say this landlord has gone too far.

“It’s inescapable that Prospect Lefferts Gardens is experiencing tremendous amounts of development and gentrification,” said Pavita Krishnaswamy, another lawyer with Legal Services NYC. “It’s possible that he’s seeking higher rents, but he violates federal law when he discriminates against black people in pursuit of that goal.”

Wasserman’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Do the rights thing: From left, Paulette James, Beverly Rivers, Lloyd Smith, and Alston Pilgrim are fighting what they say is a race-based pattern of harassment at their rent-stabilized complex.
Photo by Jason Speakman